briefing, Albert Mohler

Monday, June 10, 2019

It’s Monday, June 10, 2019. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

For It, Against It, For It, Against It: Joe Biden Reverses His Long-Standing Support of the Hyde Amendment . . . Again

He was for it before he was against it before he was for it again until he is now against it again, evidently permanently according to Joe Biden now running for the Democratic Presidential Nomination. And what he was for before he was against before he was for and against again is the Hyde Amendment, the 1976 bi-partisan achievement that made certain that federal tax monies would not go to pay for abortion.

Biden had voted for the Hyde Amendment and had been a public supporter ever since the amendment was first passed in 1976 as a response to the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion in 1973. And in recent weeks it had become something of controversy since Joe Biden announced his candidacy for the 2020 Democratic Presidential Nomination. The story of Biden’s changing public position on the Hyde Amendment is one of the biggest worldview stories we can imagine right now in America.

Because what we’re looking at here is the reality that in the crucible of a major political election contest like this, the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, issues are tremendously clarified. They are often clarified in the white hot heat of political controversy and combat. That’s what happened to Joe Biden. The Democratic Party has been lurching to the left on the issue of abortion in general, but the Hyde Amendment, particularly over the last several years. The opposition to the Hyde Amendment has been building—that is, Democratic calls to fund abortion with taxpayer dollars.

In 2016 the party took the step of including the elimination of the Hyde Amendment in its national party platform. Hillary Clinton ran on that platform. But even eight years earlier, Barack Obama, perhaps the most radically pro-abortion politician in American history to his date, he came out against the Hyde Amendment both when he was running for the Senate and in both of his presidential campaigns in 2008 and in 2012. Over the last couple of weeks, Biden has emerged as the front runner, at least in polling for the 2020 Democratic race. That also means that there is a huge target on his back from those who would rather be the Democratic presidential nominee, and the fierce battle for that Democratic nomination is revealing many of the fissure lines in the Democratic Party, but it also reveals a great deal more. It tells us where the Democrats think they want to aim themselves for the 2020 national general election. It tells us where they want to position their party. What’s taking place right now in the Democratic Party is an indication that the candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination are pushing their party and each other to evermore extreme positions on abortion.

That’s what happened to Joe Biden. He had been for the Hyde Amendment even as he entered the Senate being basically pro-abortion. Biden and others in his party, particularly other Catholics in his party began to run on the platform that they were personally morally opposed to abortion, but that they would not impose their religious views on the voters.

The quintessential expression of this morally unjustifiable position was expressed by the late former New York governor, Mario Cuomo, in an infamous address he delivered at the University of Notre Dame. But there are others who have joined in the very same idea, not all of them Catholic. At least a form of this argument was expressed by former President Bill Clinton in 1992 and in 1996. It has also been the position articulated by Catholic politicians such as Nancy Pelosi, the current Speaker of the House.

But the expression took its form from Joe Biden as expressed in his 2007 autobiography entitled Joe Biden: Promises to Keep. In his memoir, he expressed his position on abortion this way: “My position is that I am personally opposed to abortion, but I don’t think I have the right to impose my view on something I accept as a matter of faith on the rest of society.” Biden continued, “I’ve thought a lot about it and my position probably doesn’t please anyone. I think the government should stay out completely.”

Repeating something that he had said back during his first term, Biden went on clarify, “I will not vote to overturn the court’s decision.” He meant Roe v. Wade. “I will not vote to curtail a woman’s right to choose abortion, but I will also not vote to use federal funds to fund abortion.” So that was Biden in 2007 describing Biden in the Senate in the mid-1970s. He was very clear, he would not vote to use federal funds to fund abortion. He declared it then to be a principled position. But it has become very, very clear that none of the front runners to the Democratic Presidential Nomination in 2020 are going to be able to support the Hyde Amendment.

Biden came under sustained fire even as in recent days, after having indicated that he would oppose the Hyde Amendment after decades of supporting it, he came back and his campaign officially stated again that he was for the Hyde Amendment—that if elected president, he would continue to support the Hyde Amendment. That’s where he came under fire. For instance, The Washington Post ran an article with the headline, “Joe Biden’s support of the Hyde Amendment makes him unfit to lead.” Similarly, you had another Washington Post article, the headline, “Feud over abortion adds to questions about Joe Biden’s vulnerabilities.”

In that first article, Danielle Campoamor wrote, “If Joe Biden wants to carry the banner of a party that claims to champion, protect, and uphold the inalienable rights of black, brown and poor people, he must reverse his support of the Hyde Amendment and follow the lead of his fellow Democratic candidates. Anything less,” she wrote, “would be the former vice president throwing under the bus the people whose support he needs most directly at a moment when they are uniquely vulnerable. These positions may not stop Biden from getting the Democratic Party’s nomination,” she wrote, “but they make him unfit to lead.”

Accordingly, Biden changed his position. He did so as it became untenable, in the words of many on his own staff, for him to continue to support the Hyde Amendment. There was no way, they argued, that he could gain the Democratic presidential nomination if he continued to oppose taxpayer-support for abortion.

Explaining the change in Biden’s position, a front page article in the New York Times said, “When Joseph R. Biden Jr. took the stage at a fundraiser that drew many African American Democrats Thursday night,” this was in Atlanta, “he was under siege over his support for a measure that prohibits federal funding for most abortions. Black women,” says the article, “including on his own campaign staff were urging him to reverse his position, pointing to restrictive abortion laws passed in Georgia and in other Southern states. He faced a chorus of blistering if implicit criticism from his Democratic rivals, and abortion rights groups like Planned Parenthood were intensely lobbying his staff.”

“And,” the report continues, “he feared that his coming health care proposal would be overshadowed by questions of why he supported limiting abortion access for poor women and women of color who rely on Medicaid.” But the article goes on to say that he also had very close political allies, not only inside his campaign but elsewhere, including one of his successors in the Senate from Delaware, Senator Chris Coons.

Now, here’s something else that’s interesting. Coons is often described in the media as a moderate Democrat. But notice how immoderate his position is on abortion. It was Coons who used his personal friendship and influence with Biden to effectively force Biden to cross the line, reversing his support for the Hyde Amendment and joining the new orthodoxy of the Democratic Party. It is, of course, very interesting to see how political operatives and campaign staff tried to explain how a candidate has shifted positions effectively three times within a matter of days on an issue of such consequence.

When the campaign had come out reaffirming again, the fact that Biden was for the Hyde Amendment, representative Cedric L. Richmond, a Democrat of Louisiana who is Biden’s campaign co-chairman, came out and said that Biden’s position is guided by his faith. “His position on the Hyde Amendment has been consistent.” As the Washington Post reported, the next day, Richmond called his reversal “a profile in courage.” Well there you see just how fast a political argument can come. One day a candidate is lauded for his absolute consistency even though it’s the candidate who has confused the position. But after having a position claimed to be consistent, the campaign changes, the candidate changes the position the next day and the same campaign officer comes out to say that it is the reversal that represents an absolute profile in courage.

Richmond said, “I thought he took in today’s climate and the world how it is and not how we want it to be.” Now just think about that for a moment. Let’s just recognize that whether that had been said by a liberal or a conservative, a Democrat or a Republican, that is an absolutely morally pathetic statement. You have a candidate’s operative saying he took in today’s climate and the world how it is and not how we want it to be, which is to say, he trimmed his sails because of political expediency. That is a straight forward acknowledgement.

It was also in an article in the New York Times on how Biden’s friends pushed him that Representative Richmond said from the campaign, “He came to his decision on his own. Nobody pushed him.” The entire article is about the fact that so many pushed him.

But there’s another dimension to this we need to watch, and that is the fact that there are many analysts within the Democratic Party who say that Biden changed his position too late. Whether you see it as an inconsistency or a profile in courage. The reality is that Joe Biden is on the record for decades supporting the Hyde Amendment, and given the radical nature of the shift in the Democratic Party on this issue to the left, it’s now questionable as to whether Biden has any credibility with the Democratic left on the question. Of course, honestly speaking, he doesn’t deserve any such credibility.

But this comes down to another political calculation. It’s always there, and that is the tension, regardless of your party, between the positions that we want our candidate to uphold and the question of electability. You have the reality that both parties, when it comes to the end of the day, will take the best deal they can get.

But theologically speaking, there is another huge worldview dimension here that we need to understand squarely. I mentioned the fact that this argument about being personally, morally opposed to abortion but politically supportive of abortion rights is something that became very popular, especially amongst Democratic members of Congress and senators and presidential candidates over the last several decades. I also mentioned that it became particularly popular amongst Catholic politicians. And you asked the question “Why?”

Well, it is because there is no question about the absolute pro-life positions of the Roman Catholic church, especially when it comes to issues of abortion. By the way, there had been some rather brave Catholic bishops who have actually refused communion to pro-abortion Catholic politicians. There have also been on the other side, many profiles of un-courage amongst Catholic leaders, particularly bishops, archbishops and cardinals in positions of political influence. It turns out that many of them are unwilling to endanger their political influence by refusing communion and entrance to the mass for Roman Catholic pro-abortion politicians.

Part II

This Is What It Looks Like to Get in Line: How Political Moves Reveal Moral Shifts

But there is another aspect here we need to look at rather closely and it centers in the story, even in the memoir, of Senator and now former vice president Joe Biden. When it comes to Biden explaining his position, he also explains his understanding of Catholicism. Writing about his Catholic boyhood in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Biden wrote in his memoir, “I’m as much a cultural Catholic as I am a theological Catholic. My idea of self, of family, of community, of the wider world comes straight from my religion. It’s not so much the Bible, the Beatitudes, the 10 Commandments, the statutes, or the prayers I learned, it’s the culture.” He continued, “The nuns are one of the reasons I am still a practicing Catholic.”

What is so important about that is that here you have Joe Biden who, like the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, is quick to say, “I am a faithful Roman Catholic. I’m an ardent Roman Catholic. The Catholic faith is central to my identity.” There comes the point at which you have an admission like what we see here from Joe Biden in which he defines his Catholicism as not a theological commitment to Catholicism, but rather a cultural commitment.

What he identifies with in Catholicism is being a cultural Catholic. It’s not so much, he says the 10 Commandments, the Beatitudes. It’s not so much the Bible, the sacraments, or the prayers. It is the Catholic culture. Here’s what we need to note because there is a parallel here for American evangelicals, especially in the Bible Belt and in areas of cultural Christianity in an evangelical expression. Here’s the point: cultural Christianity disappears. Cultural Catholicism disappears. You see that right here. Because if all that binds a Roman Catholic is cultural Catholicism, when the culture changes, the Catholicism becomes so thin, it’s insignificant.

But this is not just about Catholicism. This is where evangelicals have to note, given our commitment to the Gospel, this is a far more important issue. Cultural evangelicalism or cultural Protestantism, which was extremely powerful during the Protestant ascendancy and domination in the United States and even still is somewhat powerful in areas especially of the Southeast and the deep South where you have a very deep Protestant, evangelical culture. That culture is melting away more quickly in some places, more slowly in other places. But there can be no question that the cultural authority is becoming a diminished reality.

And the question is, how soon do we find out that many of the politicians who claim to be evangelical Protestants, but were basically committed more to the culture than to the theology, how long is it until we discover that their evangelicalism position is so thin that it also becomes effectively meaningless, they are effectively secular? It’s a question of time as to just how quickly we find that out.

But the bottom line is the announcement that Joe Biden made himself through his campaign that he is now opposed to the Hyde Amendment. What does it mean? Well as Jennifer Ruben explained in the Washington Post just after the announcement, it comes down to this. “Joe Biden gets in line.” And this is exactly what getting in line looks like.

Part III

Parenting Matters Less Than We Thought? Why Genetics Alone Cannot Explain Who Our Children Become

Next we turn to a very different issue. The current edition of the New Scientist magazine runs a cover story that explains, “Why parenting doesn’t matter (or not as much as you think).” That’s the kind of cover story that gets our attention. Why in the world would the New Scientist be arguing that parenting doesn’t matter and what kind of sense does that make? We have to look at the article.

The cover story is actually something of an interview between Clare Wilson with the magazine and Robert Plomin, who’s identified as a geneticist at King’s College in London and the author of the new book Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are. Now, before we even look further at the argument, just consider the title of this scientist’s book Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are. In worldview analysis, we have to recognize that what we are looking at here is what is referred to as biological reductionism.

It is the reduction of a human being to a biological definition, and these days, given the science of genetics, that biological definition is often a genetic explanation. And we have to recognize just how deeply ingrained in our culture right now is the effort or the ambition to explain everything by genes. Why do I like pink rather than purple? Why do I like apples more than pears? Why does someone commit a crime? Why does someone do well in school or not do well in school? Why does someone drive fast? Why does someone dry slow? We’re trying to explain everything in terms of genetics. And if you think that’s an overreach, you just need to look at the literature.

But here we’re talking about something as basic as human parenting. Clare Wilson writes, “It is an age-old question. Are we shaped more by nature or nurture?” She goes on to say, “Robert Plomin, a geneticist at Kings College, London has spent his career teasing apart the contributions of DNA and environmental factors to countless human traits from body weight to personality and academic success. Environment,” she writes, “is undoubtedly a key influence on almost every aspect of our lives, but Plomin argues that genetics plays a more important and measurable role even to the extent that our parenting and schooling don’t matter that much.”

In the beginning of the conversation, Plomin explains the impact of genetics, first of all, when it comes to a propensity to be overweight. But here we have to recognize that is very clearly something that most of us would accept that would have something to do with physiology and that physiology probably something to do with genetics. He points to research—this is very interesting—he tells us that when you have siblings who are separated at birth and raised by different adoptive families, upon analysis, it turns out that they have very similar kinds of body types or morphology, which is to say there must be really something to the genes. Environment must play a lesser factor than many would have thought on this question. There’s no reason for Christians to deny the fact that genetics would be a considerable part of an explanation about this pattern.

But then Plomin goes on to cognitive abilities. He goes on to say, “There aren’t as many studies on personality, but we know that identical twins reared apart are as similar in personality as identical twins reared together. I studied identical twins,” he said, “who’ve grown up apart and I find it amazing how they are so similar in things like the way they laugh or talk.”

Now, let’s just look at that for a moment. This scientist’s expertise is in genetics, but he’s really talking about social traits and social behaviors. At the very least we have to recognize, that’s a more subjective form of analysis. But he goes on to argue about parenting. The basic point is, he says, that parents aren’t nearly as influential in the lives of their children as had been thought. Parenting might add a little bit, but it doesn’t add all that much. But what’s important for us to recognize is not only the fact that, that argument doesn’t really make sense, not only in terms of what might be defined as scientific literature, but of common sense and common human experience, the other thing to note is that this scientist begins to back off of that assertion.

Plomin says in the interview, “What confuses people is that there’s a correlation between parenting and kids outcomes. That’s always been assumed to be due to the nurturing environment. But,” he continues, “parents reading a lot could reflect their own genetic propensity for reading.” Now even a propensity to read or presumably not to read is just genetics. And that being correlated with similar behaviors between parents and children, with parents, for instance, reading to their children, it turns out that that is just according to this worldview, the replication of genes making sense where you have parental genes with the propensity for reading being passed down to children who have the inherited genes with a propensity for reading. And it just turns out as an incredible coincidence that both the parents and the children love to read.

But there’s something else here and this is where he begins to walk back his theory and that is that when you do look at parents reading to children, there is a very clear cause and effect. And so anyone looking at this is going to say it really does matter whether parents read to their children. Children who are not read to and do not learn to read, evidently they can’t exercise those supposed genes that indicate a propensity to reading. And so at the very least you have to walk back the idea that it’s just genes.

If it were just genes, then you would have children who don’t need to be taught how to read. They don’t need to be encouraged to read. After all, their genes would effectively determine whether they read or whether they like to read or not. And when it comes to behavior—here’s some fascinating stuff—the scientist goes on to argue that evidently personality is basically genetically determined. Parents really can’t do much about personality. But what about behavior? Well, there he says it might make sense—now get this—it might make sense to change a child’s behavior. “If your son is hitting your daughter, you can say, ‘That’s not allowed,’ and you can stop him, but you’re not changing the kid’s personality.”

Well, let’s just remind ourselves of a few issues fundamental to the Christian worldview. Number one, the Bible is not primarily concerned about personality, neither the parent’s nor the child’s. The Bible is concerned with the individual’s heart and the Bible is very concerned with how the heart is demonstrated by behavior and as the Bible also makes clear how the heart is changed by behavior and the learning about behavior. When a parent says you can’t hit your sister and makes it count, you change the child’s behavior. And by the way, at that point, what you really need to do is stop the child from hitting his sister. You really aren’t trying to do deep personality therapy at that point.

But here’s what Christians also understand: personality is shaped by upbringing, by discipline, by correction, by encouragement, by parents. That’s fundamental to parenting. And the Christian worldview tells us that that’s not an accident. This is a part of God’s plan from the beginning. But if you are going to be committed to a worldview of materialism and naturalism, if your theory of the world is going to be evolution, then you’re going to have to find some kind of biological or at least some kind of material explanation for everything. And as we’ve seen, even in this article, it comes down to a propensity or an inclination to read.

There’s a lot more in the interview, but I want to look at how it concludes. The scientist is asked, “Can you empathize with those who don’t like your ideas about parenting?” Plomin responds, “I think my latest book actually has a good message for parents that they should lighten up and enjoy their children because despite what they think, parents aren’t in control. If you think your kids are clay that you can mold, forget it.” He concludes, “I think it’s better if we think of parents as resource managers whose job it is to find out what their kids like to do and give them opportunities to do it.” He concludes, “Why not accept that it’s a relationship? Enjoy it as best you can and watch who your children become.”

Now, just consider not only just how ridiculous this proposal is, how contrary to a biblical and Christian worldview and furthermore how contrary to basic common human experience, but notice just how implausible this is as a methodology or a platform for parenting. Just consider parents as resource managers whose job it is basically to watch their children and find out who they become. But if all you were going to do is resource manage your children and see how they turn out, you won’t like how they turn out.

This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Sir Winston Churchill who, faced with an argument about English grammar, simply responded, “This is the kind of nonsense up with which I shall not put.” Indeed. If you’re morally sane, this is the kind of nonsense up with which we cannot put.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’m speaking to you from Birmingham, Alabama, home for the next couple of days of the meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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